I first heard of Guy Fawkes day (November 5) in 1987, while I was living in suburban Auckland, New Zealand. A celebration with fireworks of someone who was thwarted trying to blow up Parliament half way around the world didn’t make much sense at the time. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure that I get it even now, but it was an interesting discovery of what has remained a vital traditional in the British Commonwealth.
The people who founded the United States were more British than the Kiwis were in New Zealand in 1987. To a man, they were all familiar with Guy Fawkes day. The Founding Fathers, moreover, included a large contingent of Free Masons, who were fond of Masonic riddles in public architecture and in the symbolism of the days upon which ground was broken in erecting those buildings. The American Revolution achieved, in a sense, what Guy Fawkes had failed to do a little less than two centuries before, cast off the British government.
In this context, one wonders if the founders really chose the first Tuesday following the first Monday of November to hold our elections without symbolic meaning. One time in seven, election day in the United States falls on Guy Fawkes day. In every other year, it is never more than three days from Guy Fawkes day, something which wouldn’t have happened had they made the seemingly more straight forward decision to hold elections on the first Tuesday in November. Was American election day, like a Catholic shine built upon a pagan holy site, intended as an eternal reference to what Guy Fawkes tried and failed to do to the British Parliament? (Of course, they could have also, simply have made the decision out of respect for All Saint's Day, which is November 1).
My thoughts tend this direction, of course, because I have watched the movie “V for Vendetta” this weekend, which is based on the Thatcher’s Britain inspired D.C. Comic. The same year I discovered Guy Fawkes day, Margaret Thatcher became the first prime minister of the 20th century, in Britain, to serve a third consecutive term. Many people compare Thatcher to her political contemporary Ronald Reagan, a powerful conservative force on the other side of the Atlantic and fast ally of Thatcher. But, this comparison doesn’t do Thatcher justice in a key respect. Thatcher scared a large segment of British society. Now, Reagan scared people too. But, he made them afraid of the Soviet Union. Thatcher, in contrast, scared the British of themselves. Unlike the Americans, they didn’t have powerful independent courts to protect them or a Bill of Rights. While she didn’t end up leading Britain into an era of unending tyranny, many Britons were very frightened that she might, or that she could lead the way for a successor who would go even further.
George W. Bush is a similar figure. A great many Americans are afraid, not of foreign enemies or terrorists, so much as the threat he himself represents to our own traditions of freedom. He makes it easy for us to see how little it would take for the United States to cross the line from being a democracy to being a tyranny. He frightens us of ourselves.
Britain stepped back from the brink. John Major’s tenure was far less divisive than that of Thatcher, who grew unpopular, much as George W. Bush, whose popularity has fallen to the mid-30s has now, and had to be replaced for the conservative party to stay in power. John Major, in turn, was replaced by Tony Blair, a moderate liberal whose Labor Party has now ruled the United Kingdom under his leadership for about nine years. The fate of the American republic still hangs in the balance.